Day: May 11, 2017

As Farmers Worry, US Agriculture Chief to Promote Trade

As farmers fret over President Donald Trump’s criticism of international trade agreements, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to reassure them by creating a top post to oversee trade and foreign agricultural affairs.

The new undersecretary position is a sign of Perdue’s efforts to promote the U.S. agricultural industry as Trump has sought to undo trade pacts that benefit it. Perdue made the announcement Thursday in Cincinnati while standing near barges that carry grain on the Ohio River.

“This nation has a great story to tell and we’ve got producers here that produce more than we can consume,” the former Georgia governor said. He said the new position “fits right in line with my goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world.”

On his second day in office last month, Perdue helped persuade Trump not to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, arguing that doing so would hurt U.S. farmers. Trump has said he will work to renegotiate the pact instead.

The 2014 farm bill had directed USDA to make a plan for the new position, but the Obama administration never created the post. Perdue said the new undersecretary will work with incoming U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to “ensure that American producers are well equipped to sell their products and feed the world.”

The Senate confirmed Lighthizer on Thursday. Though he had broad support from both parties, Republican senators John McCain and Ben Sasse said they wouldn’t vote for him because they doubted he would champion agriculture and negotiate trade deals to the benefit of American consumers and the economy.

The departmental reorganization announced by Perdue would also combine farm production and conservation agencies under one undersecretary and move rural development programs to report directly to the secretary. Perdue said that will put more focus on those programs and USDA efforts to revitalize small towns.

While the creation of the trade secretary won widespread praise in farm country, at least one Democrat is criticizing the rural development move. Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio called it a “downgrade” because there will no longer be an undersecretary for that area.

Brown says his state depends on the program for help with combating opioid abuse, building hospitals and securing loans for businesses.

“Ohio’s rural communities are too often overlooked by Washington as it is, and downgrading USDA Rural Development sends a message that rural Ohio is not a priority for this administration,” Brown said.


Commerce’s Ross: China’s Plans Threaten US Semiconductor Dominance

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sees the U.S. semiconductor industry as still dominant globally but said he is worried that it will be threatened by China’s planned investment binge to build up its own chipmaking industry.

Ross told Reuters in an interview this week that his agency is considering a national security review of semiconductors under a 1962 trade law because of their “huge defense implications” — including their use in military hardware and proliferation in devices throughout the economy. He has launched similar Section 232 reviews of the U.S. steel and aluminum sectors, where a flood of imports especially from China has depressed prices, threatening the industries’ long-term health.

The probes could lead to broad import restrictions on the metals, and the Trump administration could potentially take similar actions based on the findings of a semiconductor investigation.

“Semiconductors are one of our shining industries, but they have gone from substantial surplus to the beginnings of a deficit,” Ross told Reuters. “China has a $150 billion program to take that much further between now and 2025. That is scary.”

The 79-year-old billionaire investor was referring to China’s plans for massive state-directed investments in semiconductor manufacturing capacity under its Made in China 2025 program, which aims to replace mostly imported semiconductors with domestic products.

Ross’ predecessor at Commerce, Penny Pritzker, warned last November about looming market distortions if China builds too much semiconductor capacity.

Ross added that while he understands Beijing’s logic in developing its domestic chip industry, “that’s going to be a struggle” from a U.S. trade standpoint.

Industry view

U.S. semiconductor makers, meanwhile, have other ideas about how to secure their future. Their major trade group, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), advocates open trade and increased access to international markets, which now buy 80 percent of U.S.-made semiconductors. U.S. chipmakers also depend on a complex global supply chain and have nearly half their production capacity located overseas.

“So while we fully support efforts to ensure trade in semiconductors is fair and market-based, we do not believe a Section 232 investigation is the right tool to be applied to our industry” SIA President John Neuffer told Reuters.

One area where there appear to be some differences is how to define the industry’s trade balance.

Commerce Department trade data showed that “semiconductors and related device manufacturing” had a trade deficit of $2.4 billion in 2016, with exports of $43.1 billion and imports of $45.6 billion.

But that category includes rapidly growing imports of non-semiconductor devices including solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), as well as some raw materials.

In a new submission late on Wednesday to Commerce for a study on trade deficits, SIA said that excluding the non-semiconductor products shows the sector had a $6.4 billion trade surplus last year, with exports of $41.3 billion and imports of $34.9 billion.

Neuffer said the industry was ready to work with the Trump administration to find ways to persuade China to allow its semiconductor industry to develop in a market-driven way and not discriminate against foreign firms.

He added the government could make the United States a more competitive environment for semiconductor output through tax reform that does not penalize overseas earnings, immigration reform that allows the industry to attract new talent, improvements to U.S. education and more spending on basic research.

“The Chinese are determined to build a semiconductor industry,” Neuffer said. “I think the strongest pillar of any strategy going forward has to be our government helping to create an environment where we can pedal faster and stay as far ahead as possible.”


Bulgaria Seeks Private Investors for Nuclear Project

Bulgaria is seeking private investors to build a nuclear power plant on the Danube River, which was canceled five years ago, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

Sofia canceled the Belene project in 2012 after failing to find foreign investors and facing pressure from Brussels and Washington to limit its energy dependence on Russia.

Since then Bulgaria has opened a gas link with neighboring Romania and is working to connect its gas network with neighboring Greece, Turkey and Serbia to diversify its suppliers.

It hopes to privatize the nuclear plant project after it paid more than 600 million euros ($652 million) in compensation to Russia’s state nuclear giant Rosatom when it canceled the 10 billion euro project. Rosatom had agreed to provide the nuclear reactors.

Bulgarian authorities have already said that Belene could be built without state guarantees or obligatory long-term contracts for the government to purchase power from it.

“Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said the government is looking for a strategic private investor to develop the project,” the government’s press office said in a statement.

In December, the Bulgarian government said that Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China’s biggest lender by assets, was ready to finance the Belene nuclear power project. China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has also expressed an interest in investing in the project.

During their phone call, Borisov and Putin also underlined their mutual interest in the construction of the natural gas hub on Bulgarian territory, the government’s press office said.

Plans for a hub at the Black Sea port of Varna, which would store and transport gas from Russia and the Caspian Sea to southeastern and central Europe, follow the cancellation of Russian gas giant Gazprom’s South Stream gas pipeline project, which would have shipped Russian gas under the Black Sea via Bulgaria to central Europe.


‘It Takes Up the Whole River!’ US Ports Welcome Giant Ship

The largest cargo ship ever to visit ports on the U.S. East Coast is so long the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument could fit end-to-end along its deck and still leave room for Big Ben.


The COSCO Development arrived Thursday at the Port of Savannah after cruising past dozens of onlookers who cheered and took photos of the mammoth vessel from Savannah’s downtown riverfront. Its first East Coast voyage marks a new era for U.S. ports that, despite years spent anticipating the supersized ships, will struggle to accommodate them without major infrastructure improvements.


“It takes up the whole river!” Andrew Evans, who served as a ship’s officer in the 1960s, exclaimed to his wife as the ship slowly lumbered into view, the cargo containers stacked on its deck towering above trees on the shore.


“The largest ships I was on, you could fit 10 of them on that ship,” Evans said. “Maybe more.”


At 1,200 feet (366 meters) bow-to-stern, the COSCO Development is longer than the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. It can carry 13,000 cargo containers measuring 20 feet (6 meters) long apiece. That’s 30 percent more capacity than the last record-breaking ship that sailed into Savannah last summer.


The big ship, flagged out of Hong Kong and owned by China-based COSCO Shipping Lines, is also the largest to pass through the Panama Canal following a major expansion last year. Its arrival on the East Coast shows shippers aren’t waiting for the seaports scrambling to deepen their harbors so the larger ships can pass fully loaded at low tide.


The Port of Virginia, where the ship docked earlier this week, is one of only four East Coast ports with the desired 50 feet of depth at low tide. A $973 million deepening of Savannah’s shipping channel started in 2015 but won’t be finished for about five more years. The Port of Charleston, South Carolina, where the big ship will head next before returning to Hong Kong, plans to start its own dredging this fall.


Overall, 15 U.S. seaports on the East and Gulf coasts are seeking $4.6 billion after being authorized by Congress to make room for bigger ships. Only three of those have cleared the permit requirements needed to start digging, said Jim Walker, navigation policy director for the American Association of Port Authorities.


Meanwhile, the largest ships using the Panama Canal must carry lighter loads or wait for higher tides before calling on most U.S. ports on the East Coast.


“Maybe it’s a warning shot that these U.S. ports need to get these improvements finished,” Walker said. “If you’re having to light-load ships for this, it costs more.”


Manuel Benitez, the Panama Canal Authority’s deputy administrator, said the surge in ship traffic between the U.S. East Coast and Asia has exceeded expectations since the canal opened its expanded locks last June. The authority initially thought two or three larger ships would pass through each day, he said, but the daily average has been nearly six.


The COSCO Development had to make its 39-mile (63-kilometer) trip up the Savannah River at high tide Thursday morning to ensure it would fit. Its cargo deck was about 80-percent full, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.


Lynch said dockworkers using six cranes planned to load and unload about 5,600 total cargo containers — big metal boxes used to ship goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens — from the giant ship. That’s more than five times the cargo Savannah handles for a typical ship.


“It’s everything we’ve talked about for years,” Lynch said. “Now what you’re going to see is one after the other. This is going to become more of the norm.”


Brazil Says Its Zika Emergency Over

Brazil declared an end to its public health emergency for the Zika virus on Thursday, 18 months after a surge in cases drew headlines around the world.


The mosquito-borne virus wasn’t considered a major health threat until the 2015 outbreak revealed that Zika can lead to severe birth defects. One of those defects, microcephaly, causes babies to be born with skulls much smaller than expected.


Photos of babies with the defect spread panic around the Western Hemisphere and around the globe, as the virus was reported in dozens of countries. Many would-be travelers canceled their trips to Zika-infected places.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others recommended that women who were pregnant shouldn’t travel to affected areas. The concern spread even more widely when health officials said it could also be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person.


The health scare came just as Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak, was preparing to host the 2016 Olympics, fueling concerns the Games could help spread the virus. One athlete, a Spanish wind surfer, said she got Zika while training in Brazil ahead of the Games.


In response to the outbreak, Brazil launched a mosquito-eradication campaign. The Health Ministry said those efforts have helped to dramatically reduce cases of Zika. From January through mid-April, the Health Ministry recorded 95 percent fewer cases than during the same period last year. The incidence of microcephaly has fallen as well.


The World Health Organization lifted its own international emergency in November, even while saying the virus remained a threat.


“The end of the emergency doesn’t mean the end of surveillance or assistance” to affected families, said Adeilson Cavalcante, the secretary for health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry. “The Health Ministry and other organizations involved in this area will maintain a policy of fighting Zika, dengue and chikungunya.”


All three diseases are carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.


But the WHO has warned that Zika is “here to stay,” even when cases of it fall off, and that fighting the disease will be an ongoing battle.


Adriana Melo, the Brazilian doctor who first linked Zika to birth defects, said the lifting of the emergency was expected following the decline in cases.


“The important thing now is that we don’t forget the victims,” said Melo.


Heroin Epidemic Pushing Up Hepatitis C Infections in US

The heroin epidemic is driving up hepatitis C infections, with the biggest increase in people in their 20s, U.S. health officials said Thursday.

The number of new infections nearly tripled in five years, to about 2,400 in 2015. The virus is spread by sharing needles to inject drugs, and the increase coincided with a surge in heroin use.

But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think the reported infections are far fewer than the actual number. Most people don’t get sick for many years, so they aren’t tested and don’t know they are infected. The CDC estimates that the number of infections in 2015 was 34,000, or twice as many as the estimate for 2010.

The biggest jump in new infections is in people ages 20 to 29, the CDC said.

The hepatitis C virus spreads through the blood but does most of its damage by infecting the liver. It can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. In recent years, new hepatitis C drugs hit the market that can cure the infection in only a few months. But they are expensive: A course of treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The CDC also released national hepatitis C death figures: nearly 20,000 in 2015. The number hasn’t changed much recently, but that figure reflects a different group of infected people: baby boomers. The apparent leveling off may be due to a push to test all baby boomers for the virus and the treatment improvements, said the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin.

Of the 3.5 million Americans living with hepatitis, most were born between 1945 and 1965 and were infected decades ago, according to the CDC.

Before widespread screening of blood donations began in 1992, the virus was also spread through blood transfusions. New cases fell to under 900 nearly 15 years ago and stayed at that level until they rose sharply in 2011. That was around the time heroin use began increasing, as drug abusers caught up in the opioid crisis shifted from prescription painkillers to heroin.


Scientists Study Ancient Bacteria for Clues to Drug Resistance

Scientists are studying an ancient pathogen for clues as to how to fight a drug-resistant “superbug” in hospitals and other healthcare settings.  They’ve found that resistance to modern antibiotics dates back millions of years.

Enterococci are one of a group of six bacteria known as “superbugs,” microbes that infect patients and are resistant to antibiotics, making them potentially lethal.

Scientists studying the enterococcus family found they developed resistance to harsh conditions some 450 million years ago, well before dinosaurs came on the scene.

They say lesser animals deposited feces on land that contained bacteria that learned to survive harsh environmental conditions, such as drying by the sun.

Found in 30,000 year-old ice

The ancient “grandfather” of the bacterium, found frozen in 30,000-year-old ice, can be extracted and revived by modern scientists.  That’s how hardy enterococci are, according to Michael Gilmore, an ophthalmologist and microbiologist who heads Harvard University’s extensive program on antibiotic resistance.

“The enterococci are sort of like the cockroach of bacteria.  They’re very, very difficult to kill.  And so we think it’s the traits that developed in enterococcus in order to survive on the land that are exactly what make them so rugged and able to survive now in hospitals,” said Gilmore.

Gilmore oversaw a team of researchers that sequenced the genomes of 24 members of the enterococci family, finding 45 different properties that make them resistant to antibiotics and disinfectants in modern hospitals.

Their work is described in the journal Cell.

Traced to Cambrian Explosion

By peering back into the bacteria’s genetic material, investigators were able to trace enterococci’s lineage to the Cambrian Explosion 542 million years ago when animals first emerged from the sea.

It was bacteria nestled in the intestines of crawling animals a million years later that developed resistance to their environment.  

Gilmore said scientists are studying the pathogen’s genes to identify targets for the development of new weapons to fight the superbug.  

Gilmore added by characterizing the ancient DNA of enterococcus, “We can start looking at these different resistances and trying to identify for example new compounds that undermine those.  So, those become the target set for the next generation of disinfectants or antibiotics.”

Defenses are developed

Gilmore said enterococci live harmlessly in the digestive tracts of all animals along with thousands of other bacteria.  In a hospital setting, people are often treated with antibiotics to prevent infections, but the drugs also kill helpful microorganisms that keep enterococci under control.

Without that check, the superbug, which is not killed off, develops resistance to the antibiotics.  Overtime, Gilmore said it and other superbugs have developed defenses, including a tough outer layer, that make it difficult for antibiotics to penetrate.

Unhindered, the drug-resistant bacteria can find their way into the bloodstream or organs through wounds or the use of catheters.  Once infected, patients, whose bodies are now overrun by superbugs, do not respond to antibiotics and can die of septic shock and organ failure.

Gilmore said the aim of research that traces enterococcus to its prehistoric origins is to take out this superbug that threatens hospitalized patients.


Doctors Perform First Clitoral Restorative Surgeries in Kenya

Doctors from the U.S.-based organization Clitoraid are in Nairobi this month performing restorative surgery on women who have undergone female genital mutilation, known as FGM. It’s the first time this procedure has been done in Kenya. From Nairobi, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Painting, Watch Head to Auction

A watercolor by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is being auctioned along with a Cartier watch she wore for years.

Christie’s said Thursday that the then-first lady, who painted as a hobby, created the artwork in 1963 as a gift for her brother-in law, Stanislaw Radziwill.

Radziwill gave her the watch.

Both commemorate a 50-mile hike that Radziwill undertook as part of President John F. Kennedy’s physical fitness initiative. The first lady briefly joined the hike.

The painting depicts Radziwill walking with a Kennedy family friend.

The items are being offered as a single lot at a June 21 sale in New York. The presale estimate is $60,000 to $120,000. 

The seller is anonymous. Part of the proceeds will benefit the National Endowment for the Arts.


Sinister Text Messages Reveal High-tech Front in Ukraine War

Television journalist Julia Kirienko was sheltering with Ukrainian soldiers and medics two miles (three kilometers) from the front when their cellphones began buzzing over the noise of the shelling. Everyone got the same text message at the same time.

“Ukrainian soldiers,” it warned, “they’ll find your bodies when the snow melts.”

Text messages like the one Kirienko received have been sent periodically to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. The threats and disinformation represent a new form of information warfare, the 21st-century equivalent of dropping leaflets on the battlefield.

“This is pinpoint propaganda,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

The Associated Press has found that the messages are almost certainly being sent through cell site simulators, surveillance tools long used by U.S. law enforcement to track suspects’ cellphones. Photos, video, leaked documents and other clues gathered by Ukrainian journalists suggest the equipment may have been supplied by the Kremlin.

The texts have been arriving since 2014, shortly after the fighting erupted. The AP documented nearly four dozen of them, including the one that Kirienko received on Jan. 31 in Avdiivka, a battle-scarred town outside the principal rebel-held city of Donetsk.

The messages typically say things such as “Leave and you will live” or “Nobody needs your kids to become orphans.” Many are disguised to look as if they are coming from fellow soldiers.

Fake towers

In 2015, Ukrainian soldiers defending the railroad town of Debaltseve were sent texts appearing to come from comrades claiming their unit’s commander had deserted. Another set of messages warned that Ukrainian forces were being decimated. “We should run away,” they said.

“They were mostly threatening and demoralizing, saying that our commanders had betrayed us and we were just cannon fodder,” said Roman Chashurin, who served as a tank gunner in Debaltseve.

Ukrainian military and intelligence services had no comment on the phenomenon, but government and telecommunications officials are well aware of what’s going on.

A 2014 investigation by a major Ukrainian cellphone company concluded that cell site simulators were to blame for the rogue messages, according to an information security specialist who worked on the inquiry. He spoke on the condition that neither he nor his former firm be identified, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Col. Serhiy Demydiuk, the head of Ukraine’s national cyberpolice unit, said in an interview that the country’s intelligence services knew the devices were being used as well.

“Avdiivka showed that the Russian side was using fake towers,” he said. “They are using them constantly.”

Cell site simulators work by impersonating cellphone towers, allowing them to intercept or even fake data. Heath Hardman, a former U.S. Marines signals analyst who operated the devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, said they were routinely used by American military intelligence officers to hunt insurgents.

Sending mass text messages in wartime isn’t entirely new. The Islamic militant group Hamas sent threatening messages to random Israelis during the 2009 conflict over Gaza, for example, though it is not clear how that was done.

Effectiveness of texts

Cell site simulators significantly sharpen the ability of propagandists to tailor their messages to a specific place or situation, according to Snow, the academic.

“There’s just something about viewing a message on your phone that just makes people more susceptible or vulnerable to its impact,” she said.

The type of hardware involved remains a matter of speculation. But last year, the Ukrainian investigative website InformNapalm published a video and photographs appearing to show a LEER-3, a Russian truck-mounted electronic warfare system, in the Donetsk area. InformNapalm also disclosed what it described as leaked Russian military documents discussing the LEER-3’s deployment to the Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine.

A 2015 article in Russia’s Military Review magazine said the LEER-3 has a cell site simulator built into a drone that is capable of acting over a 6-kilometer-wide area and hijacking up to 2,000 cellphone connections at once. That makes it a “pretty plausible” source for the rogue texts in Ukraine, said Hardman, the former signals analyst.

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not return a request for comment. Moscow has long denied any direct role in the fighting in Ukraine, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.

The effectiveness of the propaganda texts is an open question. Soldiers say they typically shrug them off.

“I can’t say that it had any influence on us,” said Chashurin, the former tank gunner. “We were even joking that they must be so afraid of us the only thing they can do is to spam us with these texts.”

But Svetlana Andreychuk, a volunteer who has made frequent trips to the front line to distribute food and supplies, said the threats and mockery sometimes hit a nerve in a grinding conflict that has claimed more than 9,900 lives.

“Some people are psychologically influenced,” she said. “It’s coming regularly. People are so tired. You see people dying. And then you face this.”


What’s Holding Back Self-driving Cars? Human Drivers

In just a few years, well-mannered self-driving robotaxis will share the roads with reckless, law-breaking human drivers. The prospect is causing migraines for the people developing the robotaxis.

A self-driving car would be programmed to drive at the speed limit. Humans routinely exceed it by 10 to 15 mph (16 to 24 kph) — just try entering the New Jersey Turnpike at normal speed. Self-driving cars wouldn’t dare cross a double yellow line; humans do it all the time. And then there are those odd local traffic customs to which humans quickly adapt.


In Los Angeles and other places, for instance, there’s the “California Stop,” where drivers roll through stop signs if no traffic is crossing. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, courteous drivers practice the “Pittsburgh Left,” where it’s customary to let one oncoming car turn left in front of them when a traffic light turns green. The same thing happens in Boston. During rush hours near Ann Arbor, Michigan, drivers regularly cross a double-yellow line to queue up for a left-turn onto a freeway.


“There’s an endless list of these cases where we as humans know the context, we know when to bend the rules and when to break the rules,” said Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who leads the school’s autonomous car research.


Although autonomous cars are likely to carry passengers or cargo in limited areas during the next three to five years, experts say it will take many years before robotaxis can coexist with human-piloted vehicles on most side streets, boulevards and freeways. That’s because programmers have to figure out human behavior and local traffic idiosyncrasies. And teaching a car to use that knowledge will require massive amounts of data and big computing power that is prohibitively expensive at the moment.


“Driverless cars are very rule-based, and they don’t understand social graces,” said Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab.


Driving customs and road conditions are dramatically different across the globe, with narrow, congested lanes in European cities, and anarchy in Beijing’s giant traffic jams. In India’s capital, New Delhi, luxury cars share poorly marked and congested lanes with bicycles, scooters, trucks, and even an occasional cow or elephant.


Then there is the problem of aggressive humans who make dangerous moves such as cutting cars off on freeways or turning left in front of oncoming traffic. In India, for example, even when lanes are marked, drivers swing from lane to lane without hesitation.


Already there have been isolated cases of human drivers pulling into the path of cars such as Teslas, knowing they will stop because they’re equipped with automatic emergency braking.


“It’s hard to program in human stupidity or someone who really tries to game the technology,” says John Hanson, spokesman for Toyota’s autonomous car unit.


Kathy Winter, vice president of automated driving solutions for Intel, is optimistic that the cars will be able to see and think like humans before 2030.


Cars with sensors for driver-assist systems already are gathering data about road signs, lane lines and human driver behavior. Winter hopes auto and tech companies developing autonomous systems and cars will contribute this information to a giant database.


Artificial intelligence developed by Intel and other companies eventually could access the data and make quick decisions similar to humans, Winter says.


Programmers are optimistic that someday the cars will be able to handle even Beijing’s traffic. But the cost could be high, and it might be a decade or more before Chinese regulators deem self-driving cars reliable enough for widespread public use, said John Zeng of LMC Automotive Consulting.


Intel’s Winter expects fully autonomous cars to collect, process and analyze four terabytes of data in 1 { hours of driving, which is the average amount a person spends in a car each day. That’s equal to storing over 1.2 million photos or 2,000 hours of movies. Such computing power now costs over $100,000 per vehicle, Zeng said. But that cost could fall as more cars are built.


Someday autonomous cars will have common sense programmed in so they will cross a double-yellow line when warranted or to speed up and find a gap to enter a freeway. Carnegie Mellon has taught its cars to handle the “Pittsburgh Left” by waiting a full second or longer for an intersection to clear before proceeding at a green light. Sensors also track crossing traffic and can figure out if a driver is going to stop for a sign or red light. Eventually there will be vehicle-to-vehicle communication to avoid crashes.


Still, some skeptics say computerized cars will never be able to think exactly like humans.


“You’ll never be able to make up a person’s ability to perceive what’s the right move at the time, I don’t think,” said New Jersey State Police Sgt. Ed Long, who works in the traffic and public safety office.


Eurovision: Pop, Politics, Dancing Ape – But No Russia

Sprinkle the sequins, spark up the disco lights and get ready for battle — it’s time for the Eurovision Song Contest , a celebration of kitsch and cheesy pop with an undercurrent of politics and patriotism. More than a singing contest, it’s diplomacy in dancing shoes.

This week musical acts from more than 40 countries are taking the stage in Kyiv to vie for the Eurovision crown, watched by some 200 million television viewers. The 62nd annual contest has clean-cut crooners, electro beats, yodeling Romanians and even a dancing gorilla. But there is also a big absence: Russia, whose participation has been scuttled by the country’s diplomatic and military conflict with neighbor Ukraine.


Russia is one of Eurovision’s heavy hitters, tied with Sweden for the most top-five finishes this century. But this year’s Russian entrant, Yuliya Samoylova, was blocked by host Ukraine because she had toured in Crimea after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula.


In response, Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 television is refusing to broadcast the contest, replacing Saturday’s final with a screening of the film “Alien.”


Russia has been angry since last year, when Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest with “1944.” The song described the deportations of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but also hinted at their recent treatment under Russian President Vladimir Putin.


As the 2016 winner, Ukraine is this year’s Eurovision host.


John Kennedy O’Connor, author of Eurovision’s official history, said Ukraine has long used Eurovision as a way to annoy Russia.


“Last time the contest was in Kyiv it was a song about the Orange Revolution and it was allowed to compete,” he said. “Ukraine has been needling away for a long time and now the contest is going to be in a real crisis.”


The Moscow-Kyiv split is a headache for Eurovision’s producer, the European Broadcasting Union, which strives mightily to keep pop and politics separate. Overtly political flags and banners are banned, and lyrics are monitored for provocative content. In 2009 the EBU nixed the Georgian entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” a dig at Putin. The union has been criticized for not barring “1944” last year, allowing Russia-Ukraine tensions to fester.


The acrimony is ironic, since Eurovision was founded in 1956 to bring the recently warring countries of Europe together. It launched a year before the foundation of the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union.


“Eurovision, like the EEC, was born out of this passionate belief that we mustn’t have another war in Europe,” said Chris West, author of “Eurovision!” — a history of the contest and the continent. “Both institutions were driven by this sense of ‘never again.'”


From its launch with seven countries, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40, including non-European nations such as Israel and — somewhat controversially — far-off Australia.


The contest helped launch the careers of Sweden’s ABBA — victors in 1974 with “Waterloo” — Canada’s Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and Irish high-steppers Riverdance, the half-time entertainment in 1994.


Eurovision has a huge gay following and has become a symbol of optimistic liberalism — this year’s motto is “celebrate diversity.” Victories by transgender Israeli singer Dana International in 1998 and bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst in 2014 were hailed by liberals and condemned by conservatives — notably in Russia, where nationalist politicians cited the contest as evidence of Western degeneracy.


Onstage, many Eurovision-watchers expect this year to bring resurgence for western Europe after years of eastern and Nordic dominance. The bookies’ favorites are Portuguese balladeer Salvador Sobral with the syrupy “Amar Pelos Dois” (”Love For Both of Us”) and Italy’s Francesco Gabbani , who is accompanied by a dancer in a gorilla suit on “Occidentali’s Karma,” (”Westerner’s Karma”), a cheekily sardonic look at human evolution.


O’Connor says the Italian song has the qualities of a Eurovision classic.


“It’s so out there and it’s so outrageous and it’s so silly,” he said. “But it’s also very, very catchy.”


One country not expecting a first-place finish is Britain. The U.K. has not won since 1997, and many Britons suspect politics lies behind the country’s poor showing. Winners are decided by the votes of viewers and national juries, and regional alliances are often evident. Greece and Cyprus routinely give each other maximum points, as do the Nordic and Baltic states.


Britain is seen as having few allies, and some worry the country’s decision to leave the EU may further harm the chances of U.K. contestant Lucie Jones , performing the ballad “Never Give Up On You.”


West says the truth is simpler: Recent British entries just haven’t been very good.


“Bloc voting won’t make a rubbish song win,” he said. “I think a song’s got to be decent in order to win.


“It’ll be helped by bloc voting, and that is a problem for Britain because we don’t really have a bloc. But I think if Adele or Ed Sheeran entered the competition they could still win it.”


Alaska Natives Look to Arctic Council to Preserve Pristine Region, Way of Life

The foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council nations will meet to discuss climate change this week, amid news last month that temperatures in the pristine region are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

A high-level meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his counterparts from Russia, Greenland, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland begins Thursday in Fairbanks.

As Tillerson joins the talks, the Trump administration has not yet decided whether to remain a party to the 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement on responding to climate change.

Watch: Alaskan Natives Look to Arctic Council to Preserve Waters, Way of Life

Any changes to U.S. climate policy would directly affect the lives of Alaska Natives, who depend on the Arctic Sea to survive.

In recent reports, scientists said the temperatures in the Arctic were warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, sea ice was at record lows and permafrost was thawing.

If current warming rates hold, the world could see an ice-free Arctic by 2040, researchers said.


The studies have alarmed Alaska Natives.

Gabe Tegoseak spoke to VOA about growing up in an Inuit household.

“To put that in perspective, I grew up with no running water most of my life,” Tegoseak said. “A very old-school tradition, my parents they favored it that way and it humbles me.

“I had to walk to a freshwater lake, break some ice on my sled — and this is a wooden sled I used to pull around and break it up — and then bring it home, and that was our drinking water, this big block of ice,” he said.

As the ice block melted, Tegoseak’s family first used it for drinking water, then to wash their faces and bodies, and then to clean the floor, not wasting a drop, he said.

Many people in Alaska, including indigenous people, depend on the oil and gas industry for a paycheck, he told VOA. But he said he thought an executive order signed this month by President Donald Trump to reverse Obama administration policy and open up Arctic waters to drilling was shortsighted.

“We’re trading our rights and our ability to subsistence hunt and live traditionally, which is over 10,000-plus years old, for a cash economy, which [is a] different mindset. So when we catch a whale, for instance, we share it all,” Tegoseak said.

“Our view is that everybody gets to [have] a piece of whale, and it doesn’t matter, creed or color. Everybody gets a fair share,” he stressed.

Tegoseak said he had asked many Alaska Natives on the North Slope about what they’d do if they had to choose between having their beloved whale meat, called muktuk, or an iPad. They responded that they’d choose muktuk, he said.

Seen as shortsighted

Many environmental experts agree that drilling in the Arctic is risky and shortsighted, including Sally Yozell of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research center in Washington.

“I think it’s rather shortsighted for a number of reasons. You know the Arctic waters are cold, and it’s hard to — we have not figured out yet how to address an oil or gas calamity up there at all. I mean, the cold water, all one has to do to is to have witnessed what happened with the Exxon Valdez many years ago to see that that oil stayed in those waters for 20 years,” Yozell said.

The Valdez tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil was spilled.

Experts said the accelerated melting of Arctic Sea ice will most likely lead to more shipping, drilling and other economic activity in the region.


Mark Royce of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship told VOA he was concerned.

“Unfortunately, the retreating ice, the diminution of the perpetual winters there, and the warming of their environment is giving rise to still more steam for plans for rapacious exploration and exploitative development,” Royce said. “It’s a vicious cycle. But what we’re seeing in the Arctic, in the very seas around Alaska, presents just a particularly virulent form of this at a crucial time.”

Tillerson’s remarks will most likely be followed closely by the other seven Arctic Council partners, who want to make climate change a focus of the final statement when the meeting concludes Thursday.


Uber Chases GrabTaxi in Myanmar, Expanding in Southeast Asia

Uber is launching its private ride-hailing service in the Myanmar commercial capital of Yangon on Thursday, aiming to tap into one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing online markets.

The launch follows Singapore-based GrabTaxi’s debut by about two months.

Uber is one of the world’s largest on-demand transportation platforms. It is seeking an alliance with the government to smooth acceptance of the use of private vehicles for commercial transport.

A taxi ride in Myanmar usually involves negotiating prices, no use of meters and a lack of air conditioning or seat belts. Using a ride-hailing app is still a relatively new concept, though the practice has been gaining in popularity.

Local travel services start-up Oway and Hello Cabs, a rival service run by a construction and auto dealership tycoon, also provide ride-hailing services. 

“I definitely want to try Uber,” said Nyan Zay Htet, 26, a company worker who was haggling with a driver over a fare on a downtown street in Yangon. “I welcome having international companies come in because it can be more convenient for us if we don’t have to bargain over prices and can just hop in and go.”

More than two-thirds of Southeast Asians are younger than 40 and the number going online to buy goods and services is soaring. A recent research report by Google and the Singaporean investment arm Temasek put the potential ride-sharing market in six larger regional markets at $13 billion by 2025, up from $2.5 billion in 2015.

With more than 50 million people, Myanmar is growing fast and its public transport networks are not keeping up. Taxis are plentiful in Yangon, with local media reporting authorities estimate there are more than 50,000 on the city’s jammed roads. The industry is something of a free-for-all, with non-licensed drivers turning their cars into taxis as they please. But the government has said it intends to crack down on that.

Incomes for most people are still low, so price competition may be key.

An online Uber fare estimator put the base fare in Yangon at 1,500 kyats (pronounced chuts) ($1.09) with a minimum charge of 1,800 kyats ($1.31).

Uber has faced trouble from regulators in various markets, including China, France, Spain and Mexico. But generally they target services transporting paying customers using private vehicles that are not registered for public transport, not ride-hailing that uses smartphone apps to call licensed taxis.


Study: US Foreclosure Activity Drops to Lowest Level Since 2005 

Housing foreclosure activity in the United States dropped to the lowest level since 2005 last month, according to a business research group.

ATTOM Data Solutions tracks default notices, auctions and bank repossessions across the nation and says the number of actions dropped 23 percent from a year ago. That means more than 77,000 homeowners missed payments, and banks took some kind of action to encourage the repayment of their loans.

Severe problems in the U.S. housing market, and sales of securities backed by sometimes-faulty mortgages, played a key role in the financial crisis, which is one reason that investors and economists watch the housing market closely.

Seattle, a city in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, did the best in this study, with the number of foreclosure notices dropping 38 percent from the same time a year ago. Atlantic City, New Jersey, had the worst foreclosure problem in this study, with one out of every 237 housing units getting a notice of some kind.


Fighting Algae Blooms From the Top of the Food Chain

Algae blooms happen when simple algae plants start growing out of control. The tiny plants are not usually toxic on their own, but the overabundance creates so-called dead zones because they suck all the oxygen out of the water. In Sweden, researchers have enlisted the aid of native fish that can slow down the out of control growth of algae. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


Dogs Help Autistic Children at the Dentist’s Office

Autistic children are naturally sensitive to changes in their routines, including visits to the doctor or dentist. They may become agitated and uncooperative. When a dog trainer in Chile tried bringing dogs to the office to help the children relax, the experiment proved so successful that it evolved into a full-scale business. VOA’s George Putic reports.


China Simulates Extended Moon Stays Amid Space Drive

China is testing the ability for future astronauts to stay on the moon for extended periods, as Beijing accelerates its space program and looks to put people on the surface of the moon within the next two decades.

The official Xinhua news agency said volunteers would live in a “simulated space cabin” for between 60-200 days over the next year helping scientists understand what will be needed for humans to “remain on the moon in the medium and long terms”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China to become a global power in space exploration, with plans to send a probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018, the first ever such trip, and to put astronauts on the moon by 2036.

“While it remains unclear exactly how long China’s first lunar explorers will spend on the surface, the country is already planning for longer stays,” Xinhua said.

Two groups of four volunteers will live in the simulated cabin “Yuegong-1” to test how a life-support system works in a moon-like environment. A similar 105-day trial was carried out successfully in 2014.

The system, called the Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), allows water and food to be recycled and is key to any Chinese probes to the moon or beyond.

“The latest test is vital to the future of China’s moon and Mars missions and must be relied upon to guarantee the safety and health of our astronauts,” Liu Zhiheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the news agency.

The Yuegong-1 cabin has a central living space the size of a “very small urban apartment” and two “greenhouses” for plants.

In March, China announced plans to launch a space probe to bring back samples from the moon this year, while the country’s first cargo space craft docked with an orbiting space lab in April, a major step as Beijing looks to establish a permanently manned space station by 2022.

Despite the advances in China’s space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, China still lags behind the United States and Russia.